Seriously, what is up with my headlines today?Ok, there's apparently only seven of you out there reading the front page today, so let's sneak in a little Gamecube talk under the wire. I noticed, via Voodoo Extreme, this 'exclusive Nintendo response' to recent troubles, in which Nintendo assures customers that all is well with the Gamecube, and a perception otherwise is likely the effect of any psychotropic hallucinogens you've taken recently. Downplaying abandonment from recent retailers and 3rd party developers, Nintendo takes a page from the Big Book of PR Double Speak, and paints the Gamecube as a healthy system. I wish.
Ok, let's get this out of the way right from the start, because Lord knows when anyone speaks ill of the Mighty N, they are in for a flurry of bias accusations. In some cases this is a completely valid position, and we can probably all think of at least one or two people who revel in portraying the Gamecube as a failed system. I'm not that guy. I'm aching for the Gamecube to be a widely successful system with a range of healthy first and third party games, and a perception in the industry as being a market force, which right now it is not. That's not to say that Nintendo is irrelevant by any means, but it is in trouble. And this is troubling to those on the opposite side of the gaming spectrum from the Nintendo-Playa-Hater; the gamer who is certain that Nintendo can do no wrong and anything perceived at weakness at this time is only a clever market strategy set to propel Shiggy & Co. to world domination in the very near future.
The fact seems to be that, outside of Japan (an important distinction to make), Nintendo is stumbling.
If you like fanciful speculation, and I think you do, then the topic of Nintendo is the only place to be. From promises that the Gamecube is the last Nintendo console, to hints of groundbreaking announcement just over the horizon, to detailed financial discussions that would make most MBAs scratch their head in frustration, no matter who you talk to in the gaming scene these days they profess to know exactly what is going on at Nintendo, and what should be done about it. I'm no exception, but at least I'll try and look at this objectively.
Is Nintendo having difficulties with the Gamecube outside of Japan?
Yes. It's really just unavoidable to make that diagnosis at this point, and I argue it's not simply because of any tangible element. The very fact that the Gamecube is even perceived as a weak system is, often, enough on its own to facilitate the issue, despite its validity to begin with. The fact that the stability of the Gamecube as a strong market outside of Japan is a topic of debate in the first place, exacerbates the problem, and Nintendo getting down into the muck to answer questions only confirms our fears. After all, I'd argue that the traditionally closed door Nintendo would never have taken the time to assure us everything is fine if everything were, in fact, fine.
But, we don't really need editorializing and convincing to prove Nintendo's troubles. The fact that third party developers, developers who we can assume like to make money, are abandoning the system indicates that the return of an investment in software development for the Gamecube does not, except in AAA title development, prove profitable. That is to say, that while Sunshine, Metroid, Zelda or Resident Evil can turn a profit, and even sell systems, they only do so because of unusually high sell through proportions, and the standard titles that make up 75% or more of software are wandering dangerously close to the red.
I think, the more interesting question, though, is why? Why hasn't the Gamecube been as widely adopted as the Playstation 2 or even the Xbox in the US and Europe. After all, as has been pointed out plenty of times, when it comes to gaming there's not many games stronger or more venerable than Mario, Metroid, or Zelda. Shouldn't the exclusivity of those games alone be enough to draw customers?
The short answer is, no.
Let's look at Nintendo's response for a moment:
Nintendo has very strong 3rd party support with 80 Nintendo GameCube games launching this year to accompany the many 1st and 2nd party games in development. In addition, EA recently announced their continued commitment to both Nintendo GameCube and Game Boy Advance by confirming approximately 20 forthcoming Nintendo GameCube titles over the next 12 months, a number of which are expected to support connectivity between the formats.
To me, there is something very telling in this quote, a fact that is being presented as positive and yet should stand as a giant red warning flag. According to this statement, of the 80 3rd party Gamecube games launching this year 20 of them come from Electronic Arts. A full 25% of this year's Gamecube 3rd party library comes from a single publisher. While I've pointed out in the past that this is a matter of course for a platform like the PC, this is a significant issue in a much wider console software market. With a host of Japanese and US developers making console games, publishers like Midway, Capcom, THQ, 3DO, Infogrames, Ubi Soft, Activision, Acclaim, Sega, Bandai, Lucasarts, and Universal among others should be balancing the total publishing output for any one system, and yet for the Gamecube a quarter of all 3rd party games are coming from a single source. Is this evidence of the over-reaching power of Electronic Arts, or a serious lack of support from 3rd parties? Couple first party games with Electronic Arts and you've established half of what Gamecube owners can look forward to.
If you were to ask me, and I can only assume that having read this far, you might just do that, I'd say the single biggest issue for the Gamecube is the serious lack of an expansive gaming library. For as incongruous as it may seem, gamers like to go to their EB and see crappy third party games that you can play on every system right next to the exclusives. Just as a man can not live on beer alone, Nintendo can not live on Shiggy alone. The fact of the matter seems to be that the perception of a huge library of games from which to choose inspires purchases, and both Sony and Microsoft have made much greater strides at padding their library with that wealth of options. When the library exists, people buy the system, which in turn makes those middle of the road software developers happily profitable inspiring, in turn more usually mediocre software along with the occasional surprising gem. It's cyclical, and Nintendo has fallen outside the cycle. It is better to have 300 games, of which 3 or 4 are AAA, than it is to have 150 titles with 6 or 7 AAA games. And it is here, where I think Nintendo falls dramatically short, and finds itself with significant troubles.
There's plenty to be said also for a DVD format, for online support, even for the western dominance of a company like Microsoft who is happy to take a loss on the Xbox for years, but when it comes right down to it, its the games that matter. And unfortunately, it is the quantity that trumps the quality.